By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and SEBASTIAN ABBOT, Associated Press Writers Mon Jul 7, 3:11 PM ET
BAGHDAD - Iraq's prime minister said Monday his country wants some type of timetable for a withdrawal of American troops included in the deal the two countries are negotiating.
It was the first time that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has explicitly and publicly called for a withdrawal timetable — an idea opposed by President Bush.
He offered no details. But his national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, told The Associated Press that the government is proposing a timetable conditioned on the ability of Iraqi forces to provide security.
In Washington, the State Department declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations and said officials in Washington were not yet entirely sure what al-Maliki had said.
"This falls in the category of ongoing negotiations, and I'm not going to talk about every single development, every single development in the negotiations," spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
Al-Maliki said in a meeting with Arab diplomats in Abu Dhabi that his country also has proposed a short-term interim memorandum of agreement rather than the more formal status of forces agreement the two sides have been negotiating.
The memorandum "now on the table" includes a formula for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, he said.
"The goal is to end the presence (of foreign troops)," al-Maliki said.
Some type of agreement is needed to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires at year's end. But many Iraqi lawmakers had criticized the government's attempt to negotiate a formal status of forces agreement, worried that U.S. demands would threaten the country's sovereignty.
U.S. officials have said little publicly about the negotiations. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not comment directly on the specifics when asked about it on a trip to Baghdad.
"We'd all like to see U.S. troops get out of here at some point in time," Mullen said. "However, from a military perspective I need the laws and the regulations and the agreements from the government of Iraq in order to continue operations beyond the 31st of December of this year."
With the latest moves, Iraq's government appeared to be trying to blunt opposition in parliament to any deal.
Al-Maliki also could be trying to avoid parliament altogether. He has promised in the past to submit a formal agreement with the U.S. to the legislative body.
But his spokesman indicated Monday that the government might feel no need to get approval from parliament for a shorter-term interim deal.
"It is up to the Cabinet whether to approve it or sign on it, without going back to the parliament," said spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.
Legal experts said the form of the deal was less significant than its substance.
"You could theoretically include everything in a memorandum of understanding that you could in a formal status of forces agreement," said Michael Matheson, an expert on international law at George Washington University Law School.
The Bush administration has said it doesn't need congressional approval even for a full status of forces agreement — a position criticized by some U.S. lawmakers.
The contentious issues have been U.S. authority to carry out military operations in Iraq and arrest the country's citizens, along with legal immunity for private contractors and control of Iraqi air space.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said last week after a visit to Washington that the U.S. had agreed to drop immunity for private contractors and give up control of Iraqi air space if Iraq guaranteed it could protect the country's skies.
But those concessions, never confirmed by the U.S. side, were apparently not enough to cement a formal agreement, leading Iraq instead to pursue the memorandum.
Iraq's government has felt increasingly confident in recent weeks about its authority and the country's improved stability.
Violence in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level in four years. The change has been driven by the 2007 buildup of American forces, the Sunni tribal revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and crackdowns against Shiite militias and Sunni extremists.
Despite the gains, frequent attacks continue.
A roadside bomb killed four people and injured three others Monday close to the Iranian border near Khanaqin, 90 miles northeast of Baghdad, said border guard Capt. Sarchel Abdul-Karim.
Another bomb near a dress shop in Baqouba killed one woman Monday and wounded 14 other people, police said. Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, and the surrounding Diyala province remain one of the country's most violent regions.
Also Monday, gunmen killed a member of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, said police, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.